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Pay attention to the man behind the curtain — please

“Pay no attention to that man behind the curtain,” said the great and powerful Oz. But I say it’s the guy voting in the privacy of a booth that we should heed. It’s the Iowa caucuses we should ignore.

As I write this, I don’t know who won last night, and don’t care. I’ve got my eye on New Hampshire — and, of course, South Carolina.

The Washington Post’s David Broder had it right in his Thursday column when he called the caucuses a “double-distortion mirror” on the campaign. The turnout is tiny, consisting only of people who are willing to attend a two-hour night meeting during the week and declare their preference in front of the world.

Forget what happened last night if you were watching to see which candidate has the strongest support among voters of either party. All the caucuses measure is who can most effectively corral the most highly committed, vocal partisans at a given moment. It tests organization — and a very specialized form of it at that. Organizational skill is important — but it’s hardly everything.

I used to believe in the Iowa mystique, but I learned my lesson. As a reporter for a Tennessee paper in January 1980, I spent a few days following Sen. Howard Baker as he campaigned among the frozen chosen of Des Moines and Dubuque. Ronald Reagan had made the “fatal mistake” of not contesting Iowa. My deadline story on a GOP candidates’ debate began with the solemn pronouncement that while it was difficult to determine the winner, it was clear that Gov. Reagan was the loser, because he had not shown up.

I really felt vindicated when George H.W. Bush emerged as the caucus winner. (Remember the “Big Mo”?) Needless to say, my perceived political I.Q. dropped precipitously over the succeeding weeks.

I witnessed the partial unraveling of my thesis up close and personal at another set of caucuses — in Arkansas. At a congressional district caucus in a motel in Jonesboro, I saw what a subversion of the popular will a caucus could be.

A lot of people in the room favored Mr. Bush after his Iowa win. If the participants (a tiny subset of Republicans in that district) had stepped immediately into voting booths upon arrival, he likely would have come in a weak first or a strong second.

But the Reagan people and the Baker people had done a deal. They voted for each other’s delegates, giving Mr. Reagan a huge win, boosting Sen. Baker (whose candidacy was essentially over at this point) to second, and giving Mr. Bush — in a gesture that seemed consciously intended to add insult to injury — exactly one delegate.

The head of the Baker team on the scene smiled slyly in response to my questions and said golly, he couldn’t help it if his people and the Reagan people just happened to like each other’s delegates, could he? It was the first time I’d ever met Don Sundquist, but he was obviously headed for bigger things (Congress, and governor of Tennessee, to be precise).

But you couldn’t fool George Herbert Walker Bush. He showed up at the caucus for what had been intended as a triumphal appearance. Instead, he kept it jarringly short, then tried to dodge the press. We had to do an impressive bit of broken-field running through the chairs and tables of an empty restaurant to head him off. Trapped, he answered a couple of questions, but he practically had smoke coming out of his ears as he did so.

He was ticked, and who could blame him? He knew exactly what had been done to him — and it was something that no one could have done in a primary.

I was peeved myself eight years later, when — having moved back home to South Carolina — I was shut out of the state Democratic Party’s process of choosing delegates to its 1988 national convention.

You may recall 1988 as the year South Carolina vaulted to a national significance that rivaled the influence of Iowa and New Hampshire. South Carolina gave the furious loser I had last seen fulminating in Jonesboro the momentum he needed to win the nomination and the presidency.

That year’s primary also gave a boost to the state’s Republican Party as then-Gov. Carroll Campbell — who had helped engineer the Bush victory — built it into a force that would dominate South Carolina politics.

Things were different in the other party. I’m not saying the fact that Democrats chose the insular, insider-oriented caucus path over the GOP’s successful “y’all come” primary caused its slide from relevance. But it didn’t help.

Personally, I hated the caucus approach because I value my right to vote, and the caucuses disenfranchised me: The editor supervising The State’s political writers could not attend a party caucus and publicly declare for a candidate.

But there’s a larger point here than my own predicament: Even if they weren’t professionally disqualified from participating, few independent voters will declare themselves at a caucus when they have the option of voting anonymously in a primary.

Whatever happened last night in Iowa, it can hardly be seen as the collective will of that state’s voters.

But, you say, the caucuses last night do matter because in such an absurdly compressed nomination process, Iowa can give one candidate a critical image boost on the eve of New Hampshire, and prove a fatal stumbling block to another, with no time to recover.

Exactly. Iowa shouldn’t matter, in that it does not provide a fair contest of any candidate’s true electoral appeal. But to the extent that it does matter, it constitutes a disservice to the republic.

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